Steve Brine is Minister for Public Health and Primary Care, and is MP for Winchester.
As the NHS celebrates its 70th birthday, we can look back with pride at its achievements. Perhaps the greatest of these is the increase in life expectancy for people in the UK. A woman born in 1948 had a life expectancy of 70 years, and a man could be expected to live for 65 years, while those ages today stand respectively at over 85 and 82.
This is a fantastic testament to the NHS, but the increase in life expectancy has given rise to other challenges. For example, more than half of 60-year-olds are living with at least one long-term health condition. Future proof solutions are required, to make sure that the NHS continues to support everyone who needs it.
Cancer research, diagnosis and treatment must feature prominently in our plans to deliver a sustainable NHS, since this awful disease accounts for more than a quarter of all deaths in the UK. NHS England is working hard to identify the priorities for the future and gathering the evidence of what already works well. This will enable us to make informed, evidence-based decisions on where we invest resources. I am sure many of you are already working hard to develop your responses to the consultation.
We are starting from a position of strength, however. Cancer survival rates are at their highest ever, and that is down to the dedication and professionalism of NHS staff across the country. Our workforce is undoubtedly our greatest resource and we must ensure it reaches its maximum potential. Last December, Health Education England published its first-ever Cancer Workforce Plan, an important step in helping us to diagnose cancers earlier. Without the right workforce, capacity and skills, we will not achieve our ambition of saving a further 30,000 lives a year by 2020.
And along with the traditional interventions, there is an increasing role for newer technologies in treating cancer, such as Proton Beam Therapy, immunotherapy, and CAR-T therapy to treat childhood leukaemia – announced by Simon Stevens recently as the first of a new wave of personalised NHS cancer treatments. The UK is also a world leader in cutting edge-technology such as whole-genome sequencing that has the power transform healthcare and health research by ushering in an era of personalised medicine.
In 2015, NHS England committed to implementing the recommendations in the cancer strategy on molecular diagnostics, which could mean around 25,000 additional people a year having their cancers genetically tested to identify the most effective treatments. Ultimately, the NHS will be able to deliver personalised medicine to all eligible patients, recognising that each person’s cancer and each person’s response to treatment may be different. In October, the NHS will launch a new Genomic Medicine Service, which will provide comprehensive and equitable access to genetic and genomic testing for the whole country.
Prevention is also vital. Intervening early and focusing more on stopping or slowing down future ill health can give people extra years of life, reduce premature deaths and mitigate long-term illnesses. We need to recognise and take advantage of the benefits that prevention brings to the economy – a healthier population has less reliance on the NHS, which means precious resources can be focused on those that need them most.
But we still don’t diagnose cancer early enough. The hardest cancers to detect are those where early symptoms are similar to those of other, less serious illnesses, meaning patients often visit their GP multiple times before being referred. That is why we are piloting special diagnostic centres as part of the Accelerate, Coordinate and Evaluate (ACE) programme, which are designed specifically to give rapid diagnoses or the all clear. These ACE centres are a perfect example of how we can prevent cancer deaths by ensuring cancer is diagnosed earlier, and the feedback we have received from the pilots on successful diagnoses is very encouraging.
Delivering the high-quality, modern cancer service that we all want will take more than just money. Everyone in the cancer community has a role to play. I trust that together we can lay the foundations for another successful 70 years of the NHS, focusing foremost on preventing illness, and failing that, faster and earlier cancer diagnoses, cutting-edge treatments and a cancer workforce that is the envy of the world.